While coping with the immediate challenge of Covid-19 shutdown required a massive collaboration of support groups, agencies and the Hawke’s Bay business community, the hard part is still ahead — survival.

Business Hawke’s Bay chief executive, Carolyn Neville, says every business in Hawke’s Bay has been impacted by Covid-19 and the community is reeling with “heart, guts and passion on display”.

Much of the support focus has been directed from the Hawke’s Bay Business Hub where the key support groups have been sharing practical, financial, compliance and business continuity advice and are now sharpening their focus for recovery.

Pandemic survival partners include New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Export New Zealand, Regional Business Partners, Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce, NZ Food Innovation Network, Business Central, the Icehouse and Business Hawke’s Bay.

Ms Neville says BusinessHB was often a “sounding board” helping businesses plan, respond and prepare for the future with the right connections, current information on market access and advice on how to get product to offshore markets.

There’s been a huge need initially helping businesses understand the lockdown rules, whether they qualified for subsidies, how to apply those across their workforce, whether they met the definition of ‘essential business’ and what that might mean.

Tough questions asked

The questions asked were as varied as the struggles, ranging from how to get online and strengthen digital capability and presence, adapting and turning the challenge into an opportunity and seeking rent relief or talking to the team about downsizing.

At Level 2, Neville says conversations turned to transitioning, restructuring, recovery and realigning to changed circumstances or markets and how to mitigate future risk.

BusinessHB development managers were in daily contact providing advice for example to help food and beverage businesses find staff, get online and connect with or set up food delivery services.

It also supported “a triage of support enquiries” from Regional Business Partners (RBP) which provided its own business continuity help with funding from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE).

The RBP scheme has supported 470 businesses over the past eight weeks. “To put that in perspective, says RBP’s Jenny Brown “our annual businesses engagement is 200 companies”.

RBP issued capability vouchers worth $683,000 enabling Hawke’s Bay businesses to access expert advice on business planning, cashflow modelling, employment relations and marketing and e-commerce.

“We also developed from scratch a programme of free business workshops on those topics that have run for seven weeks with 1,047 participants to date.”

Pain points aired

Karla Lee, CEO of Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce says engagement with businesses has been “massive” with 800 direct phone calls from members. “We’ve been listening to the pain points, finding out what support businesses need.”

The key need has been to promote themselves so “they have a fighting chance” which resulted in the Be in the Bay campaign which is open to all businesses and encourages consumers to actively buy local.

“We’re currently working with more than 200 business and have a backlog to load to the site. Be in the Bay is a long-term platform … to connect with customers locally and nationally.”

Lee says business owners are going the extra mile, “fighting for survival, in some cases going in a different direction, and giving it their best shot.”

BusinessHB’s Carolyn Neville was heavily involved with councils and Government agencies, keeping up to date with the latest economic data and expert opinion and establishing a regional data series bringing the latest information to businesses and decisionmakers.

One stop toolbox

It supported the HB Business Hub website with a go-local page, linking various regional initiatives and developing a business toolbox; “a one stop reference point for businesses looking for information across three broad areas; employers and employees – employment and training, online training and webinars, and tools and products.”

The Icehouse received RBP funding to bring in outside experts, alongside local coach Michaela Vodanovich, the meet the demand for support. It experienced a huge uptake in one-on-one coaching using technology and “moved quickly to address the shock that business owners were feeling,” says Neville.

For exporters NZTE says that the situation created a lot of uncertainty, particularly around air freight capacity and scheduling, but the Government ensured New Zealand has the supplies it needs and backed exporters.

The International Airfreight Capacity (IAFC) scheme, announced on 1st May, builds on that support for key international markets, with a schedule of weekly flights to a greater number of global markets.

NZTE is working with airlines, freight forwarders, exporters and government agencies to support additional charter flights, where demand requires.

“The Government has identified locations for the movement of high value exports and critical imports including Sydney and other Australian ports, Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Dubai and Middle East ports, Shanghai and other Chinese ports,” says NZTE.

ExportNZ has been assisting clients with direct connections into government, compliance and how to operate and keep people safe.

Keeping motivated

Business Central provided detailed advice and guidance on the wage subsidy, variations to employment terms and conditions, and how to communicate effectively with staff, keeping them motivated and engaged while working remotely.

It’s also been heavily involved helping to align the workforce to new market conditions, hosting over 30 webinars and virtual workshops on topics ranging from wage subsidy and employment issues to employee health and wellbeing and managing cash flow in a crisis.

The New Zealand Food Innovation Network (NZFIN) also stepped up helping local businesses with innovation and product development programmes including food and beverage focussed webinars and online training.

These include the upcoming Taster series to introduce start-ups and small-to-medium enterprises to a range of food processing and preservation techniques.

“It’s really positive to see many businesses remain focussed on innovating and creating new and exciting products despite the challenging environment,” NZFIN spokeswoman Nicky Solomon.

Neville says concerns remain about mental health and wellbeing and the human fall out from both the drought and the Covid-19 lockdown, including “good people being laid off and businesses being able to find the right people when things improve”.

She’s concerned that people will stop asking for help or may never ask for help. “Businesses need to be reminded to look after themselves and not to be afraid to ask for help.”

Business HB remains committed to assisting with ongoing business health, viability and innovation as the tough questions continue: How long will Level 2 last, what will Level 1 look like and what happens if there’s a second wave of Covid-19?

Carolyn Neville says there needs to be clearer guidelines from Government and while there’s uncertainty in trying to forecast and prepare for the future, “there will be a new normal”, and companies will most likely need to change significantly to operate successfully in whatever that future may hold.

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